On February 2nd, 2014—the Denver Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The loss was deemed a "legacy crusher" amongst the masses incognizant of the league's long history. Prior to the 2013 season, only one quarterback in NFL history had ever won a Super Bowl with a defense ranked outside of the Top-20 in points surrendered and outside of the Top-10 in forced turnovers—and it wasn't Joe Montana, Tom Brady, John Elway, Roger Staubach, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Terry Bradshaw or Troy Aikman—it was Peyton Manning in 2006.
The Broncos 22nd ranked scoring defense was the worst in NFL history to ever support a league MVP, and they were also the worst in NFL history to ever support a team that won 13 or more games. They ranked 16th in forced turnovers and 27th against the pass. But it usually didn't matter as Manning's record-breaking production was the Broncos' remedy. Even if it meant out-scoring their opponents 51-48—a win was a win.
- Manning's 55 touchdown passes were the most in NFL history.
- Manning's 5,477 passing yards was the most in NFL history.
- Manning's nine games with 4+ touchdown passes were the most in NFL history.
- Manning's 15 games with a passer rating of 90.0+ were the most in NFL history.
Coming off the heels of knocking out Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, it was expected that Manning would again beat the odds, despite the fact that in 47 years of prior Super Bowl history, zero quarterbacks had ever won a championship with a team as incomplete as the 2013 Denver Broncos.
Unlike the 2006 Indianapolis Colts team that won the Super Bowl after their best defensive player, Bob Sanders, returned from injury, the 2013 Denver Broncos had five defensive starters on the injured reserve—including their best defensive player, Von Miller. Paris Lenon became the sixth backup forced into the starting lineup, and Champ Bailey had no business starting at cornerback. By Super Bowl XLVIII, seven of the Broncos' starting eleven defenders were either backups or injured (Bailey).
- Zero teams in NFL history ever won a Super Bowl when giving up more than 31 points—the Broncos defense gave up 36.
- Zero teams in NFL history ever won a Super Bowl averaging less than 2.2 yards per carry—the Broncos averaged 1.9.
Consider that in addition to such support, the Broncos also gave up a safety on the team's first play of the game, then allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown on the first play of the second half. Manning could have thrown four touchdown passes and the Broncos would have still lost by two touchdowns.
The "narrative" however, was the more appealing headline and thus—the loss had to fall on Manning's shoulders.
It didn't matter that Manning completed 69.4 percent of his passes. It didn't matter that his 34 pass completions were the most in Super Bowl history. It didn't matter that his first interception came after Julius Thomas got tangled up in coverage, and his second interception came after his body was sandwiched between two defenders. It didn't matter that he threw a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas on a play that Bryon Maxwell should have been flagged for pass interference. It didn't matter that he posted a 97.6 passer rating in the second half. Manning didn't have a great game, but the context of his performance was bypassed to hype the perception of his failure.
The Broncos organization was not oblivious to the lack of support they provided Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII—so they replaced 15 of their starters.
On September 21st, 2014—the Broncos came to CenturyLink field, home of the world record for outdoor crowd noise and a Seahawks team that had won 18 of its last 19 home games. The one outlier came during the 2013 season vs. the Cardinals when Carson Palmer's one-touchdown/four-interception performance was enough to knock off a Seahawks team that only scored ten points. Needless to say, opposing quarterbacks haven't fared well in Seattle.
Opposition in last 23 home games: 373 of 648 (57.6) for 3,736 yards, 16 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. 63.0 passer rating.
The circumstances Manning faced were eerily similar to Super Bowl XLVIII.
- Manning attempted 49 passes in Super Bowl XLVIII—he attempted 49 passes in the rematch.
- The Broncos averaged a putrid 1.9 yards per carry in Super Bowl XLVIII—they averaged 1.8 yards per carry in the rematch.
- The Broncos came into Super Bowl XLVIII with the 27th ranked pass defense—they ranked 30th heading into the rematch.
- The Broncos first offensive play in Super Bowl XLVIII was a turnover via safety—their first offensive play in the rematch was turnover via lost fumble.
With the score 17-3 heading into the fourth quarter, a victory seemed certain. With 9:24 left on the clock, Manning's touchdown pass to Julius Thomas marked his 47th consecutive game with a touchdown pass—tying Johnny Unitas for the second longest streak
in NFL history, narrowing the score to 17-12. With 2:25 left on the clock, 25 yards away from a game-winning touchdown, Manning's pass was intercepted by Kam Chancellor and ran back to the Broncos' 34 yard-line. Wes Welker was leveled by Earl Thomas immediately after the interception, but there was no call
for a personal foul. With a flag, the Seahawks may not have been in position to kick a field goal.
With the score 20-12, Manning had 59 seconds to move his team 80 yards down the field. History was against him. Never in NFL history had any quarterback ever led his team to a touchdown and game-tying two point conversion with under a minute left in the game. Never, against any opponent under any circumstance, a 0% success rate.
This was not an expansion team defense—it was the Seahawks' famed "Legion of Boom", the same unit that destroyed the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, and the same unit who had just intercepted Manning minutes prior with the game on the line. There would be no other opportunities to avenge that loss, no other opportunities to prove that Manning, at age 38, could crack the best defense in football. On the first play of the drive, Marcus Burley kept his arms all over Emmanuel Sanders—no flag—before running into his own teammate, Kam Chancellor. On second down, without interference, Manning ran the same play and hit Sanders for a 42-yard completion.
The ball was spiked. On second down, Ronnie Hillman triped over himself—incomplete. The Broncos faced 3rd and 11 as Manning hit Demaryius Thomas for an 11-yard completion, leaving 24 seconds on the clock. Manning took the next snap and hit Jacob Tamme for a 26 yard touchdown pass—his 100th as a Denver Bronco. It took only 35 games for Manning to reach this milestone, obliterating the previous record of 44 held by Dan Marino.
With the score 20-18, Manning needed to get past the Seahawks defense to tie up the game with a two point conversion. He took the snap from shotgun, used his height to look over defenders and fired a pin-point pass over the "Legion of Boom" to connect with Demaryius Thomas, who covered by Richard Sherman. Thomas' feet stayed in bounds, the conversion was good, and the score was tied up, 20-20.
Heading into overtime, the Broncos lost the coin toss and the Seahawks got the ball.
During regulation, the Broncos pass defense played better than the low level they'd grown accustomed to, but with the game on the line, they returned to the form that ranked them 30th in the league heading into the Super Bowl rematch. Russell Wilson carved apart their infamous "cream cheese" defense—easily driving Seattle down the field before Marshawn Lynch ended the game on a 6-yard touchdown run.
Manning would not have the opportunity to touch the ball in overtime—the final score: 26-20.
Overtime rules that prevent both teams from having a guaranteed opportunity to possess the football are not equal. Forget the nonsensical argument that the rules are established to prevent players from over-exhausting themselves—five seconds of reflection immediately dispells that myth. Giving both teams a guaranteed possession simply means that the opposite units (e.g. Broncos offense, Sehawks defense) return to the field. That has nothing to do with the Seahawks offense and Broncos defense, who themselves had played an additional drive. Strides to keep television networks happy by preventing extended games may be reality, but that doesn't mean that the flawed overtime rules adopted for this purpose should be defended as equal—when they're anything but.
In the battle between the Broncos and Seahawks, Seattle stands at 2-0, with one victory acquired on the grounds of unequal opportunity. That much doesn't change the fact that on both occasions, collectively, the Seahawks were the superior football team.
But in the first Super Bowl rematch the NFL has seen in 17 years, as the perception of his legacy hung in the balance, Manning went toe to toe with the "Legion of Boom" and with the game on the line, under circumstances that yielded a 0% success rate in the league's history, Manning picked apart the Seahawks defense and capped the drive off with two end zone completions for the ages. Flawed rules and the very nature of "team sports" may have left Manning's Broncos the losers of the football game, but the significance of what Manning accomplished, both historically and under the pressure-packed circumstances, has left its mark on NFL history—even if the masses remain unaware or unimpressed by the depth of such achievement.